The People's Champion
by Robert Davis
Former World No. 5 Fernando Gonzalez reached the 2007 Australian Open final.
Fernando Gonzalez's high-octane game is at odds with his down-to-earth, off-court demeanour. It's an unusual, but successful mix.
It's the debate of choice among Chile's growing legion of tennis fans: Who is the best Chilean player of all time: Marcelo Rios or Fernando Gonzalez? While that argument shows no sign of abating, there is no doubt that Gonzalez stands alone as the country's favourite tennis son.
"Once he started doing so well this year the debate started again," says Benjamin Witte, sports editor of the Santiago Times. "It is tough to beat Rios as he got to No. 1, but the people, the sports fans, really want Gonzalez up at the top."
Nicolas Pereira, former ATP player and current ESPN tennis commentator, knows why: "He (Gonzalez) is good to the public; he is hard working and very modest. The people can identify with him," Pereira says. "I think that Chileans are grateful to have a tennis star that is very down to earth. He is a great ambassador."
"Both Fernando and Marcelo have been great for Chilean tennis," says Chilean Patricio Apey, a former coach of Gonzalez's. "We are such a small country and to have two players like them can only help the younger generations."
Ask almost anyone on the ATP World Tour about Fernando Gonzalez and the first thing they will mention is the quality of his character. The second thing that they reference is the quantity of his forehand.
"My impression of Gonzo was that he was very genuine. What you saw on and off court was the real guy," says Paul Settles, former ATP World Tour tour manager. "He had the respect of his peers in the locker room, and not just by the South Americans or Spanish speaking players. His appeal crossed international borders. And his forehand will remain one of the most feared weapons in modern day tennis."
Whoever said that tennis is not a contact sport has never stood in the line of fire of a Fernando Gonzalez forehand. It is a weapon that commands respect and demands that it be approached with extreme caution. Easily recognised by the mother of all backswings - a windmill wind-up that packs a heavy bullet load - it is considered one of the best forehands the game has ever seen. Armed with that lethal weapon, Gonzalez burst onto the scene back in 2000.
Fernando Gonzalez and coach Raul Viver are having dinner at the Olive Garden restaurant in Orlando, Florida. With an ATP ranking of 352, Gonzalez is sure that he will not get into the qualies of the US Clay Court Championships. Viver is now on the phone requesting a wild card.
"They told me that the wild cards are only for Americans," Viver remembers. "I told them that this kid is really good, he could actually win the tournament." Gonzalez must have been listening to his coach, because win it he did, all the way from the last player accepted into the qualifying rounds.
"In qualifying and getting to the final, Gonzo looked like he'd been there a hundred times before," says Settles. "But in the final, I remember Gonzo being very nervous before the match. Of course, after he had blasted a few ballistic forehands, he settled down and played nearly flawlessly. Just after the final, several of us were aware that we had witnessed something special; that this guy wasn't going to be some one-hit wonder.”
To date, Gonzalez has 12 ATP World Tour titles, three Olympic medals, dozens of Davis Cup match wins and, along the way, has inspired thousands of kids in Chile.
"He (Gonzalez) is a major superstar in South America and he handles it very well," says former coach Larry Stefanki. "Fernando is a very generous person with his time and charity work in Chile. He is extremely grounded as a person and loves spending time with under-privileged kids."
In 2007, when a powerful earthquake rocked the northern Chilean town of Tocopilla, more than 15,000 people were left homeless. In response, Gonzalez created the Tennis Cup for the Children of the Home of Christ, plus an exhibition with fellow professionals that raised money for the charity. He also makes a donation to the home after each match he wins on the ATP World Tour.
Gonzalez is playing the best tennis of his career, and it could not have come at a better time. He is marching through the field at Roland Garros and today has a date in the semi-finals with Robin Soderling. While Wimbledon might be considered the most prestigious of tennis tournaments, for a Latino, Roland Garros is the crown jewel.
The shock is as sudden as it is surprising: Gonzalez is down two sets to love against Soderling. "Honestly, I was very surprised. Never did I think that he could be losing," says Martin Rodriguez, Gonzalez's coach. "He looked turned off, no reaction. Nada. After the second set I had little hope."
Then in typical Gonzalez style, he launched a furious comeback. Bold in his shot selection and relentless in his pursuit of victory, Gonzalez fought back to level the match at two sets all. Destiny seemed to be on his side when he went up a break, four games to one in the fifth. His life-long dream of playing for the Roland Garros title was about to come true.
Magnus Norman, Soderling's coach, was not ready to concede the match, even though everyone else in Court Philippe Chatrier had given up Soderling for dead.
"I started shouting at Robin to attack his shots," Norman says. "To go for it." Soderling obeyed Norman's command. And it worked.
Soon after, Gonzalez is found hunched over in disbelief in the men's locker room. Still sweating and with red clay embedded in his shorts, socks and shoes, lingering proof of the tragic battle that he just lost. Did he stumble or was he stopped?
"I felt extremely disappointed for Fernando in his defeat to Soderling," says Stefanki. "I communicated to him that Soderling started going for winners and there was not much you can do about that type of high-risk tennis. It was a big moment for him but he will have more opportunities in the future."
"It was a grand deception," says Rodriguez. "It was painful for all of us, but nobody was more sad than Fernando. He felt that he could have gone further."
Gonzalez is eight years old and there is a television crew filming him playing tennis at La Reina Club in Santiago del Chile. "Early on my dad encouraged me and pushed me hard," says Gonzalez. "And together we worked very hard."
"I first saw Fernando play when he was eight years old," recalls former coach Apey. "I immediately saw a talent that, in my opinion, could take him to the top of the game one day. What he had in his hands was almost magical."
In addition to his talent, Gonzalez succeeds in large part due to his work ethic. "Each time I walk on the court for practice, I try to improve something," says Gonzalez. "One has to work, and my style demands that I have to have good fitness."
Whatever the topic, almost all conversations about Gonzalez eventually lead to his forehand. So what makes it so special? "The moment I first hit with Fernando I could not believe how hard he hit his forehand," says former coach Viver. "The power and acceleration was really awesome, but we worked a lot on consistency and on opening angles and changing speeds and heights."
"Very early on he had a very big backswing, but his acceleration was fast enough to handle it," remembers Apey. "And after lots and lots of practise he really developed it into the weapon it is today."
"What makes Fernando special as a tennis player is his ability to hit his forehand offensively from anywhere on the tennis court," says Stefanki. "He has a top two or three forehand on tour and I think he has the best low forehand in the game. The forehand gets scary good. But his backhand is a good shot and not a weakness as people think. That is why he has stayed in the Top 10 for the past few years. I am a big Fernando fan and it is disappointing for him not to win a Slam yet. [He reached the 2007 Australian Open final, losing to Roger Federer.] I am proud to have coached him for two and a half years."
"I think he is a great example for every kid and not only Latinos," remarks Ramon Delgado of Paraguay. "Fernando has a great personality, good behavior on the court and is a great competitor."
Should Fernando Gonzalez never win another tennis match, all those who have come in contact with him over his career would forgive him. For them, Fernando Gonzalez the man will always be a winner.